GARDEN CITY HARVEST’S YOUTH PROGRAM CONNECTS TEENS WITH SENIORS LIVING ON LIMITED INCOMES
The teens call it Big Red: an old bread delivery truck painted deep red and emblazoned with the Garden City Harvest logo. Each week of the summer, youth aged 15 to 18, hired by Garden City Harvest’s Youth Harvest Project grow food at one of our four farms and load up Big Red with sustainably raised, fresh produce. They make stops at affordable senior housing around town, setting up a farm stand at each location.
Seniors can buy produce with the change in their pockets, right outside their front doors.
The proximity, the low cost, and the intergenerational connection all come together to make a dynamic connection between two often isolated and under-nourished groups.
The teens are far from the stereotypical farmer.
“We had a team of kids that came who were heavily tattooed and pierced, and their hair was all colors,” said Glengarra Place resident Erin O’Connor.
Garden City Harvest staff members recruit these teens from Missoula’s Youth Court and area high schools. They’ve usually been through more rough stuff than your average 15-year-old.
On the other end of the spectrum, Glengarra Place, which is funded by HUD, has 40 apartments for seniors 62 and older. To live there (and at most of the housing these teens visit) you must be on a fixed income that is 50 percent or less of Missoula’s median income.
But these seniors aren’t what the teens expect, either. Sylvianne Wright, one of the Youth Harvest teens, explained her first impression.
“I was expecting something so much different. It seems like. . . I’m not going to say a sorority or a frat—those are like crazy—but it’s kind of like that. It’s a nice little community.”
These residents don’t appear isolated and alone: they seem friendly and open.
O’Connor attempted to explain: “The feeling of being a part of a neighborhood and a community is a really important part of this stage of our life. When people feel cast aside…” Her voice trailed into a frown. “The coming together of the elderly people and the young people here is a blessing for everybody. There aren’t very many venues that provide for that. They help us feel hopeful.”
By the end of the season, the seniors throw a potluck for the group, using ingredients they had bought from the Mobile Market for their dishes.
At the same time, O’Connor likes breaking down some of the senior stereotypes these teens might have. “We’re exposing them to an opportunity to crack their stereotypes. You can’t teach someone anything if they’re not open to you,” she said. “You know some of these kids haven’t talked to anybody over 40.”
When I arrived at O’Connor’s apartment, she was in the middle of preparing a birthday meal for a friend. Despite a hip dislocation earlier this year, she bustled about, closing cupboards and pouring me a glass of water.
Her apartment smelled wonderful: stuffed turkey breast just out of the oven and last year’s strawberries thawing on the counter, destined for a cobbler.
On Mobile Market days, the teens spend the morning harvesting produce for the seniors. The PEAS Farm, where they grow food, is a 10-acre plot in the Rattlesnake neighborhood of Missoula. It is an urban farm, nestled in between houses and Rattlesnake Creek. Most every vegetable that can handle the harsh Montana climate grows there—much of it going to the Missoula Food Bank, some to Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shareholders, and some to volunteers.
The farm is staffed by Garden City Harvest, along with UM Environmental Studies program students working on their college degrees.
A diverse group keeps the farm’s heart beating. Everyone shares a meal—made with freshly picked produce—with whomever is working that day.
The teens then load up Big Red and are off to the seniors.
Glengarra residents call Big Red “the little red wagon,” a variation on Big Red that tells you they love it as much as the teens who arrive in it do.
According to Wright, Youth Harvest has been such a big milestone in her life that she wants to get a tattoo of Big Red to remember her time here.
Her emotional development has been a long journey. She talked a lot about the lessons she had learned along the way,
“When I first started working here, I didn’t know how to express myself. When I would get angry I would scream and break things,” she said. “I don’t have a closet door anymore, because I ripped it off the hinges and kicked it into billions of pieces.”
Her brother, eight years her senior, filled in for her father who struggled with depression after her mom left. It has taken many years, but she has repaired relationships with both her parents.
When she came to Garden City Harvest, she was in what she calls her “whatever” phase. In other words, she didn’t have much faith in herself. She didn’t want to apply to Youth Harvest, even after a beloved teacher encouraged her.
Wright applied, never thinking she’d get a call back. She got the call for an interview and eventually got the job. But every step of the way was “whatever, I probably won’t get it.” But she got it and she came.
“The first day I was like, ‘this is going to suck,’ and then two hours in I was like, ‘this is awesome.’” Since then, she has dedicated herself to the work.
“Working here I learned how to healthfully communicate and tell them how I am feeling,” she said. Before this program I didn’t know how to be in touch with my emotions.”
Part of Youth Harvest involves daily group therapy to cope with emotions, as well as lessons in life skills.
“My work ethic has improved so much…and my money management,” said Wright. “Without this program, I’d still be some sad little girl.”
According to O’Connor, the program builds community from the ground up.
“The skills they’re learning through this youth program—it’s something that’s applicable for their whole lives,” she said.
Big Red was fired up July 9th, carrying veggies and more to the seniors of Missoula until mid October. And O’Connor will be one of the first in line when Big Red pulls in.